Physical activity and cancer prevention

The benefits of exercise are well documented: good mental health, weight management, strong bones and muscles, and improving our ability to do everyday activities.

Here is another important reason to stay active – reducing your risk for cancer.

Why is physical activity important?

Getting and keeping a strong, healthy body improves its ability to deliver oxygen to cells. According to Jomel Labayog, MD, hematologist and medical oncologist with OSF HealthCare, healthy cells grow and replicate properly, helping us to avoid cancer.

“Our cells are constantly replicating themselves. A vast majority of our cells are replaced every seven to 10 years,” Dr. Labayog said. “Cancers and other ailments often result from unhealthy cells replicating. A tumor can result, and the new growth starts its lifecycle.

“Healthy cells will most likely reproduce healthy cells and vice versa. Physical activity and good nutrition help to flush out toxins, deliver oxygen to cells and provide the necessary nutrients to keep us healthy.”

Physical activity recommendations

The American Cancer Society (ACS) encourages us to achieve and maintain a healthy weight throughout life by keeping our weight within the healthy range and avoiding weight gain as we age.

To maintain a healthy weight, the ACS provides these physical activity guidelines:

  • Adults:Get 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week (or a combination of these).
  • Getting to or exceeding the upper limit of 300 minutes is ideal.
  • Children and teens:Get at least one hour of moderate or vigorous intensity activity each day.
  • Limit sedentary behavior such as sitting, lying down, watching TV and other forms of screen-based entertainment.

“As long as what you do is safe and done properly, it doesn’t matter how you exercise,” Dr. Labayog said. “When you sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, you get some health benefits.”

Type of exercise

Strength training

Dr. Labayog suggests doing strength-building activities at least twice a week. You should include all the major muscle groups – arms, back, chest, hips, legs, shoulders and stomach. Some ideas include:

  • Cycling
  • Heavy landscaping or gardening
  • Hill or stair walking
  • Resistance bands
  • Pilates
  • Push-ups, pull-ups and squats
  • Weight lifting

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic activities benefit the heart and lungs, improving how our bodies use oxygen. Dr. Labayog advises focusing the bulk of your physical activity on these exercises. Some ideas include:

  • Brisk walking
  • Cycling
  • Elliptical trainers
  • Golf – walking, without a cart
  • Jumping rope
  • Tennis or basketball
  • Rowing
  • Running
  • Roller skating
  • Swimming

Prevention is better than treatment

Moving from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one can be difficult. But building your immune system and avoiding various ailments, including cancer, will make it worth it. And while it may be challenging to make the transition, it’s much more difficult after you become sick.

Cancer and the resulting treatments are hard on the body. Moving past cancer requires even greater motivation, strength and energy.

“Taking extra steps to reduce risk can pay huge dividends for your future. Whether you are at a healthy weight or need to focus on weight loss, you can start by taking little steps – up the stairs,” Dr. Labayog said. “Starting an exercise plan or taking on a new physical activity can be tough. But it is not near as hard as hearing me say, ‘You’ve got cancer.’”

Before starting a new exercise program or physical activity, you should consult your primary care provider.